06.18.17 – A Promise Fulfilled – Galatians 3:10-22
One of my favorite theological writers, Douglas Adams, opens a book called The Restaurant at the End of the Universe with these lines:
“The story so far: In the beginning the Universe was created. This has made a lot of people very angry and has been widely regarded as a bad move.”
With a couple of tweaks, that could pass as a decent summary of the whole book of Genesis. God makes this perfect garden, and people mess it up, but God’s committed to fixing it.
God wipes everything out and starts again with this new righteous guy, Noah, but then he turns out to be just as bad as the original people. Turns out that humans don’t make the most stable of kingdom-building partners.
So God starts all over again, with Abraham. This time, he doesn’t ask anything of Abraham other than trust. He makes a promise that through Abraham’s family, all the peoples of the world will be blessed.
Before Jacob wrestles an angel, before the Exodus from Egypt, before the stories of bloody conquest and the mostly terrible kings and the exile and the return and the rebuilding, there was the promise.
That’s what our faith continues to be rooted in: a promise.
It’s like a wedding. You’d be rightly concerned if you went to a wedding and the happy couple stood up and before God and the people of God, they laid down the law for each other. You might start wonder if this is, perhaps, not a very happy couple after all.
There are rules, in a sense: be faithful, be kind, and so on. But the rules aren’t there independently. They’re just a way of helping two people live out the promises that they’ve made, because a marriage is rooted in a promise.
And it makes us nervous, and rightly so, when membership in a church is focused on obedience to a bunch of rules. For starters, who has time anymore to go from house to house making sure that everyone is in compliance? There are homeless people to house and there’s bigoted nonsense to protest and there’s more stuff on Netflix then you’ll ever have time to watch. Find a better hobby.
But more importantly, enforcement isn’t one of the gifts of the Spirit. Discipling, yes. Encouraging, yes. Mentoring, yes. Even correcting has its place.
But none of us are called to decide that another person is a failure. We’re all so much more than the list of things that we’ve gotten wrong. We fail, but that doesn’t mean that we’re failures.
Being part of a religious community isn’t about following a bunch of rules, even when there are rules. It’s about a promise, a commitment we make to the work of growing in faith with other people.
The promise always comes first. The promise is always the point.
That’s what the Christians in Galatia had forgotten. They got it when Paul was in Galatia, preaching about love and freedom, but then these other teachers showed up saying that they had to get circumcised and eat only kosher foods, and they forgot what Paul had said and started thinking that the law was the point.
Paul doesn’t think that the law is a bad thing. He probably considered himself a good Jew for his whole life. But he wants to tell a different story about what it means to be inside the family of faith- not as a disciple of Moses, but as a child of Abraham.
That was the point, right? Abraham sees all the stars in the sky, more than we ever see now, and God promises that his children are going to be as numerous as all those stars.
The flood from God didn’t work and the tower built by people didn’t work, so this is the new plan- this is how God is going to fix the world.
But this new plan is plagued by the same problem as all the old plans- we just aren’t always faithful promise keepers. Adam and Eve ate the fruit, Cain killed his brother, Noah got drunk in a tent and did something embarrassing, and Abraham’s family wasn’t a whole lot better.
When God brought them out of slavery in Egypt, they built a special tabernacle out in the wilderness… and then it turned out that not one of them was even able to go inside into God’s presence. It was too holy, too pure, too much.
That’s where the law came in. It was a way to help the people understand what a healthy community looked like- one where the poor are cared for, where relationships are conducted with integrity, where people have meaningful work and times of rest, where worship is kept at the center.
But just like Adam and Eve, and Cain, and Noah, and Abraham’s little clan of grifters, the people couldn’t do it. They got rules that explained how everything should go, right down to how you bury your poop outside the camp, and they still couldn’t be faithful.
None of us are good at being faithful. That’s why the promise has to come first. A law without a promise behind it is just a curse.
We’ve got our marriage document up on the wall in our living room. We kept our vows simple, just used the ones from the green yearly meeting Faith and Practice. We promised to be loving and faithful to each other until one of us dies.
And yet, here’s a true thing that happened: we had this coffee table, in the living room. It’s where I tend to work on things like sermons and news articles for FUM, so I spend a lot of time there.
And as some of you have probably noticed, any space where I spend a lot of time eventually gets piled with books and papers. It’s part of my gift to the universe.
So instead of cleaning this coffee table, I suggested that we get a new one- one with shelves and doors so I could store things inside the table rather than on top of it. Craig agreed with this strategy, and then put it together while I sat on the couch with a stuffy nose.
The end result has been that we now have two coffee tables in our living room, one that’s entirely buried in nonsense and another that’s slowly acquiring nonsense.
I have a band-aid on my leg because I’ve walked into the new coffee table so many times, which Craig gently suggested might be because our living room has become rather difficult to navigate, what with having two coffee tables in it.
I promised to be loving and faithful, but the details of that turn out to be an awful lot of work.
But the promises that I make, and the promises that you make, are all held within the faithfulness of God. They’re all held within the promise that God made at the beginning the story, to find a way to redeem the mess and heal the hurts and bring us back home.
Paul makes a point here that seems obvious on the face but still trips us up. He writes: if a law had been given that could impart life, then righteousness would certainly have come by the law.
Let me read that for you again: if a law had been given that could impart life, then righteousness would certainly have come by the law.
But it didn’t- we know that because we know the story. Having the law didn’t lead to righteousness. Having clearly spelled out choices between holiness and sin, between blessings and curses, didn’t lead to righteousness.
Was that because it was a bad law? No- it was God’s own law. It was a perfect law.
So we have to look at the other option, the possibility that laying down the law isn’t the way to impart life. Laying down the law isn’t how righteousness comes.
We don’t need a better law. We need grace.
That’s what’s transformative about the gospel. It’s not another set of rules that we know we’re going to break, but it’s also not saying that the rules don’t matter.
It’s the promise that when we do break the rules, the game isn’t over. It’s saying you broke the rules, and we need to fix this, but I still love you and I’m still your friend.
So let me ask you a question: what are some situations where we could stop laying down the law? What are some situations where we could start applying forgiveness and grace instead?
Here’s one- what would our prison system look like, in a gospel order, where the focus isn’t on laying down the law but on bringing healing and restoration?
Here’s another- what would your Labor Day family barbeque look like, if nobody enforced the rules and people just forgave infractions?
William Penn claimed, back in 1693, that we aren’t capable of hurting people if we believe that they love us. I don’t know that that’s universally true – all centuries have their jerks – but if we’re honest, we know for sure that laying down the law doesn’t work.
Why not give love a shot? Or, as Penn puts it, “Let us then try what Love will do: For if Men did once see we Love them, we should soon find they would not harm us. Force may subdue, but Love gains…”
Love gains. Force may subdue, but Love gains.
All who rely on the works of the law are under a curse, Paul writes, and it’s harsh language and it’s uncomfortable, but it’s true.
You’re never going to prove yourself that way. You’re never going to be enough, do enough, sacrifice enough.
And the people that you’re laying down the law for- they’re never going to do it either. It’s a chasing after the wind.
But God in his grace gave it to Abraham through a promise, and it comes to us the same way: as a promise, as a mercy that comes before we keep the law, before we break the law, even before we know the law at all.
God is bringing the world to redemption, and we get to be the priests of that kingdom, offering forgiveness and mercy as we go. It’s a beautiful gospel calling. May we go at the work with creativity, and with tenderness, and with courage.